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Wieliczka

History of the Wieliczka Salt Mine


Text & Images - Copyright © 2009 Kevin Hulsey

Salt is inextricably linked to the Polish culture, and the Wieliczka Salt Mine has been the epicenter of Polish salt production since the 13th century. The mine is located in the town of Wieliczka-Bochnia, within the Kraków metropolitan area.



The Wieliczka (pronounced 've-LEECH-ka') salt-mine reaches a depth of 327 meters, and is over 300 km long, creating a vast underground network of tunnels, shafts, and chambers.



Wieliczka Salt Mine Photos


This rock-salt deposit at Wieliczka has been mined since the 13th century, and over that period miner/artisans have carved hundreds of religious and symbolic artworks into the rock salt. The mine ceased operations in the early 1970s, and in 1978 it was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Kunegunda's Shaft at Wieliczka
Decending into Kunegunda's Shaft at Wieliczka

Now open to the public, the mine receives around 1.2 million visitors per year. To reach the Chapel of Saint Kinga at 150-meters depth visitors must walk down a wooden stairway with over 400 steps. The temperature in the Wieliczka mine remains a constant 55 degrees.



Wieliczka Salt Mine Kineguna Shaft
The Kineguna Mine Shaft and Caverns

Saint Kinga's Chapel is the lowest level that is open to the public, and many of the ancient shafts and caverns that lay below this level are now flooded with ground-water which has created vast underground lakes.



Wieliczka Salt Mining Horse-Drawn Hoist
Horse-Drawn Hoist in the Danilowicz Shaft

During the 16th and 17th century, horses were used to lift the salt to the surface. The photo above shows how the salt was lifted at Wieliczka's Danilowicz Shaft.



Pentinents Worker in Burnt-Out Chamber
Pentinents worker in the Spalone Burnt-Out Chamber (left)

Salt mining was a particularly hazardous job in the early days. The Spalone, or "Burnt Out Chamber" contains carved salt statues commemorating the miners who worked as 'pentinents' who's unenviable job it was to burn off the methane gas that would accumulate at the ceilings of the mine's many chambers and caverns. The reward for such dangerous work - an extra bag of salt to take home.






Cathedrals & Chapels of Wieliczka Mine

The people of Poland were deeply religious, with many attending church daily. With miners of Wieliczka spending days at the bottom of the mine, it was necessary to construct prayer chapels within the mine. The Chapel of St. Kinga is the largest, and most elaborate of Wieliczka's forty chapels.



Saint Kinga Cathedral
Saint Kinga Cathedral

The Chapel of St. Kinga has several side chapels and alters such as the 'Our Lady and the Resurrection' chapel, and 'Heart of Our Lady,' and the 'Heart of Lord Jesus' side altars.



Chapel of Saint Kinga Alter
Alter in the Chapel of Saint Kinga

The Chapel of St. Anthony is one of the oldest surviving chapels at Wieliczka, dating back some 300 years. St. Anthony's was carved the shape of a baroque church, containing salt figures of Christ on the crucifix, the Virgin and Child, and St. Anthony.



Rock Salt Crystal Chandeliers
Rock Salt Crystal Chandeliers in the Holy Cross Chapel

The St. John Chapel is located on the third level, with a small semicircular wooden arch carved into a niche in the cavern's wall. On the ceiling of St. John's there is a polychromy depicting the Holy Father and Son between the clouds.






Chapel of St. Kinga - Frescos Carved in Salt



The Last Supper in Salt
The "Last Supper" Carved in Salt by Antoni Wyrodek

The Chapel of Saint Kinga is lined with several highly detailed frescos that were carved by a salt-miner named Antoni Wyrodek, who was later sent to Crakow to study art after his talent was revealed.



Salt-Rock Carving
Salt-Rock Carving of 'Christ Preaching in the Temple' by Antoni Wyrodek






Wieliczka Salt Sculptures & Shrines

Many of the salt sculptures are now slowly dissolving, loosing their delicate features due to water-vapor condensation on the surface of the green salt. This destruction is being caused by an increase in the humidity of the ventilated mine air.



Salt Sculptures of Nicolaus Copernicus
Salt Statue of Nicolaus Copernicus at the Danilowicz Shaft (left), Jozef Pilsudski (right)

Humidity is added to the ventilated air from large underground lakes which were created from ground-water intrusion, but tourist activities may also play a part in the added humidity. The Wieliczka mine receives approximately 800,000 visitors per year.



Gnome Salt Sculptures
Gnome salt sculptures in one of Wieliczka's salt caverns

Along the route to the bottom of the mine there are numerous caverns and caves with salt sculptures of Gnomes who were considered to be good luck for the miners.

Within the Jozef Pilsudski Chamber there is a salt statue of Polish soldier and statesmen Jozef Pilsudski, as well as a statue of St. John Nepomuk, the patron of those who drowned in the Wessel salt lake.



St. Mary in Rock Salt Crystals
St. Mary surrounded by rock salt crystals (right)

At a depth of 135 meters lies the Lake Wessel Chamber, with a micro-climate that is known for its "bacteriological purity," caused by sodium chloride, magnesium and calcium ions created from the underground salt-lake. The air in the Lake Wessel Chamber is said to have rehabilitative properties for one's respiratory system, curing ailments such as asthma, COPD, and other bronchial diseases.


Legend of the Wieliczka Mine

According to Polish legend and folklore, the mine's discovery in the 13th century was due to Queen Kinga, who was the daughter of king Bela IV of Hungary, and wife of Polish king Boleslaw the Modest.



Salt Sculpture of Queen Kinga
Salt sculpture of Queen Kinga receiving her lost engagement ring from a salt miner

The story reports that Queen Kinga threw her engagement ring into the Maramures salt mine in Hungary, and the ring was carried by the salt deposits to Wieliczka where it was rediscovered and presented to the Queen.



Within the Janowice Chamber, there is a salt sculpture depicting the legend of St. Kinga, with a miner handing a block of salt to Queen Kinga, containing her engagement ring (photo, above).




  

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